Feature

Gay Cruising in Modi’s India

The art of the pickup in New Delhi, where homosexuality is illegal, Grindr is growing, and policemen are waiting just around the corner.

A gay couple embrace as they gather with
A gay couple embrace as they gather with members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community for a celebration marking the first anniversary of an Indian court's ruling decriminalising gay sex between consenting adults in Mumbai on July 2, 2010. For India's gay community, the joy that greeted last year's court ruling legalising gay sex is tempered by the fact that, although the law now accepts them, society still does not. For all the celebrations and talk of an historic milestone, many believe it will take more than a court decision to change public attitudes toward homosexuality, which is largely taboo in India and considered by many to be a mental illness. AFP PHOTO/Indranil MUKHERJEE (Photo credit should read INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP/Getty Images)

NEW DELHI — Observing gay cruising in India felt like high-stakes bird-watching — the fluttering of something delicate and intense. On a Sunday night in mid-December, I visited Nehru Park with a gay rights activist; he agreed to accompany me but asked to remain nameless, in part because homosexuality is illegal in India.

The 85-acre park, in a wealthy area of the capital that hosts most of its embassies, was poorly lit, rambling, and quiet. The travel website Cruising Gays called the park, which is named after India’s first prime minister, the “grand dame” of New Delhi’s cruising places. “On Sunday evenings, the gardens are rocking with over a hundred men hanging around, waiting, looking and just checking out the scene,” claimed an undated post on the site. “If you are a novice and looking to meet other men, this is the place you should start with.” The technique, the activist told me, was simple. Stroll, keeping your head up, and make eye contact with men who walk by. If someone catches your eye and smiles, walk up and say hello.

The park was nearly empty. The activist pointed out one man and we walked behind him stealthily, but he disappeared into the darkness. We spotted another, ambling through a path about 40 feet away from us. Twenty-five million people live in the Indian capital — it’s the world’s second-largest city — but all I could hear were our footsteps, illuminated by the light on my iPhone, and my overactive breath. As we neared, preparing to say hello, I noticed the man was wearing a jaunty cap, and a uniform. Stepping closer, I saw a gun on his belt. “That’s a policeman,” the activist said quietly. If he knew what we were doing there, he chose to ignore it. We quickly walked away.

In December 2013, India’s Supreme Court recriminalized homosexuality, overturning a 2009 ruling by the Delhi High Court that had legalized same-sex relations. “Carnal intercourse against the order of nature with man, woman or animal,” can now once again be punished with up to 10 years in prison, according to the law — Section 377 of the Indian penal code. Accurate statistics on the size of India’s LGBT community are hard to come by, but some 7-10 percent of India’s population could be affected by the law, estimates Arvind Narrain, one of the founders of the Indian research organization Alternative Law Forum.

The ruling, however, appears to have barely affected cruising. There’s no good measure on the extent of cruising in New Delhi, or in India as a whole, but mobile apps like Grindr and Scruff — and the meetup site PlanetRomeo — are gaining popularity. Grindr, probably the best-known gay hookup app, has 69,823 average active monthly users in India, according to a company spokesperson. While that’s relatively low (roughly equal to the number of active users the app has in Boston) it’s growing healthily, the spokesperson said.

In the United States, cruising has been mostly supplanted by the Internet and apps that facilitate meetups and hook ups. With the Internet “came online cruising and a way for gay men to connect with one another besides the newspapers and clubs,” Johnny Skandros, the founder of Scruff, said in an email. “In the United States, it changed chronologically. Technology overhauled bars and cruising spots,” Parmesh Shahani, author of the book Gay Bombay, told me. “But in India, these parallel cultures [are] existing simultaneously.”

The Nehru Park activist tells me that he now meets men mostly online. That night, we ate at a restaurant called Soda Bottle Opener Wala in Khan Market, a touristy area popular with foreigners. He pulled up Grindr, and his screen was filled with nearby men, and a healthy backlog of unread messages. “So many!” he said. Especially for those in the middle and upper class, “there’s definitely been a huge transition from the physical space to the Internet space,” he added.

India is still more than two-thirds rural and overwhelmingly poor, however; the country’s average per capita income on a purchasing power parity basis was just $5,412 in 2013. And while cell phones are common, less than 10 percent of India’s 1.25 billion people have smartphones. “Everyone talks about India as a land of IT, where there’s lots of nerds around, but it’s still just a very thin veneer of the middle class” that lives in that world, says the journalist Ashok Row Kavi. Especially among the working class and the lower-middle class, who make up the majority of India’s gay population, “the cruising culture is still very strong,” he told me.

* * *

In an industrial area of New Delhi, full of gaping, half-finished buildings and shops selling cricket equipment, I visited one of India’s only gay spas. I had read about it online — but at the requests of activists I spoke with, I won’t reveal identifying details about the place. For a roughly $20 dollar entry and massage fee — a price that put it out of reach for the majority of New Delhi’s gay population — the attendee manning the front desk led me to a small room where roughly eight male prostitutes sat and watched television. They were diverse, to account for customer’s tastes: muscular, skinny, short, tall — with skin colors ranging from olive to dark brown. One of the massage rooms featured a single bleary red light hanging from the ceiling, and little else.

Like many of the people I spoke to, Row Kavi had been to the spa — but he didn’t like it. “It was very tacky,” he told me. “There isn’t much talk, socializing, or chatting. No reasonable discourse. It’s a wham-bam-thank-you-man kind of place.”

Row Kavi has been to Nehru Park too, but it’s not his scene either. “You see upper-middle-class queens cruising the bylanes, quick checks and off you go,” he told me. “That’s fine, but it doesn’t end up with any sort of social interaction.” He prefers the park above the Palika Bazaar in Connaught Place, a busy shopping area. “I used to go there once a month,” he said. “It’s like a fraternity of sisters gossiping away.”

The activist from Nehru Park told me that he also used to like the Palika Bazaar area. “It was extremely thrilling,” he said over dinner. “The thrill is that you’re doing it knowing that it was slightly dangerous, and it’s kind of a chase…. It’s quite addictive.”

But I found the space incredibly depressing. The first time I went was on a Monday afternoon. I didn’t see anyone cruising; the only people I came across were slack-mouthed hucksters, with the physical tightness that in the United States might mark a flyweight boxer; in India, it screams malnutrition.

* * *

India’s Congress Party, long the dominant political force in the country and the party of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, has been relatively liberal on the issue of gay rights. When the Supreme Court recriminalized homosexuality in 2013, Congress spoke out in favor for the rights of India’s LGBT community. Other minor parties, including the Communist Party of India, have also voiced support for gay rights.

But in May 2014, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Narendra Modi, won a resounding election victory. Many gay rights activists I spoke to said they didn’t vote for Modi’s party because of its social conservatism, but that they were in a wait-and-see mode: wary of the aftereffects of the December 2013 ruling, but unwilling to speak out against the BJP because they didn’t want to force Modi to comment on homosexuality. Believed to be celibate, though previously married at a young age, Modi has been quiet on the issue. Homosexuality “is a matter for the courts, not the government,” M.J. Akbar, a spokesman for the BJP, told me. “I don’t have any sense of what’s Modi’s view [is] on homosexuality.”

Still, the status quo is dangerous. Indian government data shows 587 people arrested under Section 377 from January to October 2014. But as some Indian states lack complete reports, the total is almost certainly higher. The problem, however, is persecution — not prosecution. Narrain describes it as a pyramid, with the hundreds of cases actually recorded at the top, and at the bottom, an uncountable number of cases where the law is used to blackmail, harass, and extort.

The activist whom I walked Nehru Park with became much less enthusiastic about cruising after cops caught him in a park several years ago. The inspector “was a nice guy and let me go,” he told me. He had been lucky. Friends of his had been beaten up, abused, and blackmailed. But the experience scared him. “It’s not quite pleasant,” the activist said. “I decided it wasn’t worth it.”

In December 2013, Rajnath Singh, then BJP president and now minister of home affairs, told reporters, “Gay sex is not natural and we cannot support something which is unnatural.” Since then, some gay rights advocates have made the Hindu case for queerness. Devdutt Pattanaik, a popular Indian author, recently published a book called Shikhandi: And Other Tales They Don’t Tell You, which he describes as an “appreciation” of queerness in Indian mythology. Pattanaik sees references to queerness throughout Hindu mythology being ignored — from the male god Krishna braiding his hair as a woman to stories “of men who become women, and women who become men, of men who create children without women … and creatures who are neither this, nor that, but a little bit of both.” Hijra, India’s third gender — which encompasses eunuchs and people who are transgender or intersex — is legally recognized, although they are “ignored by the mainstream, often rejected by [their] own family, reduced to a joke in popular entertainment,” notes Pattanaik.

The book opens with an admonition appropriate for India, both today and in the colonial era: “Beware of a land where celibate men decide what is good sex.” Celibacy runs through Indian political culture, and the country’s independence leader, Mahatma Gandhi, is also its most famous celibate. He found intercourse problematic, and would reportedly occasionally sleep naked next to attractive young women, to demonstrate his mastery over desire. But India’s Section 377 is a legacy of the British Raj. (Homosexuality in the United Kingdom was effectively criminalized until 1967.) In one of the earliest known usages of the law, in 1884, “[T]he somewhat aptly named J. Straight was called upon to adjudicate whether a person who habitually wore women’s clothes and exhibited physical signs of having committed the offence had indeed committed the offence,” Narrain wrote in an essay. Police arresting men for “acting” gay still happens today, he told me. “If you perceive them to be L, G, B, or T, then you got them under this law,” he said.

And Bollywood, India’s hugely influential film industry, isn’t helping. “Making jokes at the expense of alternate sexual preferences is the norm in Bollywood,” writes film critic Komal Nahta. There are a few openly gay Bollywood directors, but “no gay icons, no major Bollywood stars who have come out, no influential CEOs who have made their sexual orientation public,” the novelist Manil Suri wrote in a June 2013 essay in the literary magazine Granta.

For some, there is a joy in proclaiming one’s sexual identity. In The Man Who Would Be Queen, a collection of “autobiographical fictions” by the Indian author Hoshang Merchant, the narrator proclaims, “‘As everyone knows by now, I’m homosexual.’ To write this sentence and to speak it publicly, which is a great liberation, is why I write.” But like many of the people associated with the Indian gay rights movement, Merchant has spent substantial time away from India. Suri’s essay is entitled “How to be Gay and Indian”; he lives in Maryland.

Back in India, gay culture remains mostly in the shadows. Later in my trip to New Delhi, I returned to the park above the Palika Bazaar, recommended by the activist from Nehru Park. It was the time of evening haze, and unlike the silence in Nehru Park, this well-kept lawn pulsated with the cacophony of car horns and tires screeching and loud and soft and angry and happy voices. There I saw a short man, with a clean, oversized gray hooded sweatshirt and a bit of a paunch. He walked around the space like it was his own, and then returned to the fence he had been leaning against, as dozens of men milled about the park, ignoring him. He smiled warmly, and then raised his eyebrows — as if trying to lead them to an overwhelming question.

INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP/Getty Images

Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S-China Relations. He was formerly the Asia editor at Foreign Policy Magazine. @isaacstonefish

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